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Memo to TV Producers: Exercise the Power to Educate

June 02, 1997|DREW ALTMAN and VICKY RIDEOUT | Drew Altman is the president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. Vicky Rideout directs the foundation's program on the entertainment media and public health

The issue of sex on television has never been hotter. Just recently Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the creation of a new "Family Hour" that would create a "safe haven for the family viewing audience." The speaker's proposal is only the latest in the simmering TV wars. The president continues to jawbone the TV industry to show less sex and violence, the debate about the usefulness of the voluntary TV ratings system continues, and the Senate has been holding hearings regularly on the subject of sex and violence on television.

As politicians and network executives continue to debate the negative impact TV can have on its viewers, there is a bigger opportunity being lost. That opportunity comes from the power of dramas and comedy programs to have a positive impact on their viewers by educating while entertaining. We're not talking about preachy documentaries or public service announcements here--rather, the opportunity the industry has to make money and do good at the same time by incorporating useful public health information and socially responsible themes into regular programming.

Consider the following experiment we conducted to examine this issue: We knew that the April 10 episode of "ER" was going to feature a date rape victim who learns that she still has contraceptive options to help prevent pregnancy, even after having unprotected sex. While in the emergency room, she learns that if she takes a heavy dose of regular birth control pills within three days of unprotected sex, she can reduce her chance of becoming pregnant by 75%.

We conducted a scientific national random sample survey of "ER" viewers before and after the show to find out if watching the show made any difference in their awareness of emergency contraception. We found that the number of viewers who knew there is something a woman can do after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy increased by a third; and that was from a single vignette that lasted just one minute in one episode. Imagine what impact a yearlong story line or plot involving a major character could have.

"ER" certainly does everything it takes to entertain; after all, it's the No. 1 rated show on TV. But, according to the viewers we surveyed, "ER" also educates. More than half of the show's regular viewers who were surveyed say they learn about important health-care issues from watching. Sixty-two percent said that this was one of the reasons they watched the series, suggesting that it is possible to educate and inform without sacrificing audience share. There were other positive effects too. A majority of "ER" viewers we spoke with said they talk about health-care issues that come up on the show with their family and friends, and 12% said they actually took the initiative to discuss an issue with their doctor because of something they had seen on an episode.

And this is no small audience--30 million to 40 million people view "ER" each week.


So while we are all bashing television, we should also be highlighting--and the networks should be taking advantage of--the many opportunities for television to play a more positive social role. Not just on the easier issues--showing characters who "buckle-up" when they climb into a car, or working designated drivers into scenes where alcohol is being heavily consumed--but on the tough ones as well, like sex.

Here is one concrete proposal: Studies show that TV soap operas average more than five sexual encounters per episode. In the age of HIV, these shows should make using condoms the equivalent of buckling up. A condom on the bedside table on a popular TV show (as on the recent season finale of "Beverly Hills, 90210"), or a story line that realistically depicts the consequences of unsafe sex, could have more impact on young people than any government program or public service advertising campaign. The networks' Standards and Practices departments could make this an industry policy, just as they did with the use of seat belts many years ago.

The power of television to educate provides an extraordinary opportunity--and a big responsibility. Television writers and producers need to know that what they do and say really matters, and the rest of us need to recognize that TV can be a powerful ally, not just a scapegoat. Sex and violence sell, and as long as they do you can rest assured that they will continue to be staples of television programming. But if we can encourage the many talented writers and producers in Hollywood to work a little information and education into the mix, our children will benefit and most Americans will feel real progress has been made.

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